Sunday, August 29, 2010

Inclusive Language

Aug 16th 2010, 21:02 by G.L. | NEW YORK
VIA Stan Carey's Sentence First we learn that Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has long been interested (some might use a stronger word) in the periodic attempts to institute gender-neutral pronouns in English, for those cases where "he or she" feels cumbersome but "they" is numerically inaccurate.
You might have heard of pronouns like "ze" and "zer" created for the purpose of discussing transgender and genderqueer identity. But according to Mr Baron's count there have been "more than 100 attempts to coin a gender-neutral pronoun over the course of more than 150 years", including heeshhsekinvetateyfmzzeshem,sej/ejeeeyhopoaeetheshehannhermaladeghach... the list goes on.
Now, for the benefit of us web-rats, he has condensed the fruits of his research into ahighly entertaining blog post, which includes clippings of newspaper articles on the need for such pronouns, going back to the mid 19th century. See, for instance, this one fromThe Atlantic in 1878:
We want a new pronoun. The need of a personal pronoun of the singular number and common gender is so desperate, urgent, imperative, that according to the established theories it should long since have grown on our speech, as the tails grew off the monkeys.
It's nice to see that a scant 19 years after the publication of "On the Origin of Species", Darwinism was already considered "established", whereas today America seem to be moving in the opposite direction. And yet English-speakers have resisted gender-neutral pronouns as stubbornly as the cosmopolitans of the world have resisted Esperanto.
If we continue the natural-selection metaphor, then, this suggests that if words, or indeed whole languages, have an equivalent of evolutionary fitness (an organism's capacity to get its genes into the next generation), then merely being designed to suit a certain purpose is not enough to ensure fitness. Natural selection operates incrementally, after all; new species don't appear out of the blue, but form gradually as adaptations of existing ones that already have a niche in the ecosystem. Refudiate might catch on, because it's an adaptation. Ghach... forget it. Maybe with time "he or she" could gradually turn into "hershee" and then "hersh", or "s/he" become "sehee" and then "se", but coining them from raw metal won't work.
But if they evolve gradually, they're in an evolutionary arms race with "they". And my money would be on "they". It's more of a leap to introduce new pronouns that are gender neutral than adapt an existing one to be number neutral. As Mr Baron points out, "After all, if you, which is also gender neutral, can serve both for singular and plural, why can't they do the same?"

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